Sometimes movies are made for pure escapist entertainment, involving crazy sci-fi ideas or caped and masked superheroes or bank heists or ridiculous and unbelievable love stories, and these movies are designed to pull you out of your world and to enjoy basking in a different one, an artificial one, for a couple of hours, allowing the audience to forget about their bills and their medical problems and their family issues. But then sometimes movies are made not to help you escape from the real world but instead to help bring the real world into stark focus, to show you something that you would otherwise not know about, to challenge your worldviews and to make you do the unthinkable, which is to actually empathize with someone whom you might not have anything in common.
Here’s a thought experiment: think of a homeless person. Picture this person in your mind. For the sake of pronouns, let’s assume you thought of a man. He is probably dressed poorly, right? And he’s dirty? Of course he is, he lives on the street, it’s not like he has a closet of clean clothes and every day access to a hot shower and soap. What else do you assume about this person? That he’s lazy? Refuses to find work? And he’s probably a junkie, right? Or a drunk? Only substance abuse could lead to someone living such a lowly, unwanted life, right? Or if this person isn’t an addict, then he’s probably mentally ill, and of course we know the shameful practice of this country not recognizing mental illness properly, so it wouldn’t surprise us to see this sick person sleeping on the sidewalk because where else is he going to go. Or our country’s biggest shame, which is how the veterans of our foreign wars come home with post traumatic stress disorder and without proper help, quickly ending up on the streets (female veterans have become America’s fasting growing homeless population). In the end, if you are honest with yourself, you probably have a lack of empathy for the homeless and maybe even see their problem as just that…THEIR problem. After all, if they weren’t addicts, or if they didn’t join a volunteer army during wartime, or if they weren’t just so damn LAZY and held a job, then they wouldn’t be in that mess, right?
“Homeless” is the story of 18-year old Gosh (that’s “Josh with a G”) and how he ended up living on the streets in a North Carolina town. He’s not a drunk or a drug addict, he’s not mentally ill, he’s not a soldier who did horrible things abroad and then came home to find the government pushing him aside. He’s just a person, a regular old person, who has fallen through the cracks of society. His grandmother was his legal guardian, but he was really taking care of her, and when she died he had nowhere to go. No parents to go to for help, no friends who could bail him out, Gosh is just alone. He winds up in a shelter, by far the youngest person there, and from the bottom he tries to put his life back together.
But he can’t do it alone, and where his family abandoned him, the kindness of strangers finally gave him some real hope. Coming from places he least expected, Gosh finds himself with a support system that can help him get his life on track because if he doesn’t, he’s on the street for good. And as he quickly finds out, once you are homeless, it is hard to get out of that rut because of the stigma that comes with being homeless. Businesses close off to him, even the public library is loath to have his “kind” hanging around, employers don’t want to hire him because all they see (and smell) is a person down and out. It gets to the point where someone offering help actually becomes odd and a little suspicious because the rejection becomes the norm. Hell, even something as simple as having a permanent mailing address to put on job applications turns into an obstacle to overcome.
“Homeless” gets in your face, the kind of movie that wants you to take an unflinching look at a sad and dangerous world, a place where someone well-meaning like Gosh could still end up hustling for a place to sleep, constantly looking over his shoulder for dangerous people and the police, trying to stay out of trouble while simultaneously trying to figure something out. A good portion of this movie is showing a “slice of life” type of deal; Gosh finds a shelter and checks in, and quickly realizes the place is kind of run like a jail to keep people in line. They then turn him out, along with everyone else, at 7 am and he has an entire day to kill before they let everyone back inside in the evening. So he hits the streets, finding places to sit and just wait for the day to end. If he has a couple of bucks, he may buy a cup of coffee so he can sit INSIDE for once, out from under the cold, dreary, grey, indifferent skies. Even after he spends a day gathering and filling out job applications all over town, then he just goes back to waiting, waiting for a phone call, waiting for someone to just give him a chance and let him earn some money so he can escape his wall-less prison.
The style of the movie leans towards realism – lots of handheld camerawork, an ever shifting focus that acts as if the cameraman is there actually filming something as it happens like a documentary, and a very real and lived in performance from Michael McDowell, who makes Gosh more than a cipher or a placeholder but instead an actual person. When he talks about how he could play guitar all day and he wouldn’t mind having a career as a nurse, we believe this guy, we can feel that he actually does have these dreams and hopes, and when he sinks into depression and can barely bring himself to talk to others, it is kind of heartbreaking because it is obvious this guy doesn’t deserve this rotten hand he was dealt, and yet he’s stuck having to play it. When he is shown sitting on a tire on the side of the road, watching cars go by, talking to no one, completely, it is nothing but crushing to see such loneliness.
And as if the actual homelessness and loneliness wasn’t enough, this movie has another thing up its sleeve, which is the idea that family can disappoint you and leave you (literally) out in the cold, while strangers are the ones who look out for each other and help each other out. But what happens when those strangers become friends? Why is it that the familiarity came somehow lead to dishonesty? The kindness of strangers can turn into a betrayal by friends, and that just might be the worst thing of all. An offer to help becomes something much worse, and in that case, who can you turn to? When family doesn’t help and friends don’t act friendly, one is truly alone in this world, and that must be the biggest obstacle to overcome.
Very effective and well made, “Homeless” is going to struggle to find a wide audience because there are no heroes and really there are no villains, it does not take place in some alternate universe and it does not sugarcoat or ignore problems that we experience in our day to day lives. But surely this will be a movie that will be hard to forget for those who do see it, and hopefully this will be the kind of movie that helps open peoples’ eyes and minds to what is a very serious and widespread problem throughout this country and throughout the world.